Jonathan L. Wharton

There’s something about witnessing politics in person. The pandemic reminded many of us that online meetings and hearings can only do so much. But I had the opportunity last week to return to our state Capitol for the first time since the pandemic started. I connected and engaged with more officials than expected and I gained a greater appreciation for our state’s legislative process. 

It’s hard to believe that three years have passed since I was in the legislative office building’s cafeteria. That greasy grill and charred coffee smell immediately welcomed me at 9 in the morning as I had a coffee meeting with a General Assembly aide friend. The LOB’s cafeteria was a constant buzz of lobbyists, legislators, aides, and reporters. In fact, the space led to unexpected meetings with a lawyer advocate and my university system’s government affairs representative. Going out to the LOB’s atrium afterward, I bumped into a few lawmakers and lobbyists. It was equivalent to an overdue reunion.  

But the best part of the day was connecting with former students who have gone on to become General Assembly aides and lobbyists. I assumed these Southern Connecticut State University alumni knew each other when they were unaware that they attended the same alma mater. Being an unofficial connector and proud professor, I savored the moment.

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

Aside from a couple of morning and lunch meetings with General Assembly staff, I also attended the Planning and Development Committee’s hearing on transit-oriented development. As a state and local government researcher specializing in economic development policy, HB 6890 (Work, Live, Ride) sparked my interest and garnered public attention. I was surprised to see so many attend the hearing and shocked by the intensity of lawmakers and witnesses offering testimony.

But that’s the exact point of attending such sessions. It’s not quite the same as viewing hearings online and it’s far better to listen to the banter around you in the committee room or in the hallways. Besides, unplanned meetings are some of the most critical moments.

I had the chance to connect with a number of state lawmakers who were guest speakers in my Connecticut Politics class, whether in-person sessions or online discussions. I also unexpectedly met with members of the public testifying before the committee. Although I left the committee room throughout the day, the hearing went well into the evening with over 70 testifying.

Admittedly, I missed the opportunity to network and share ideas with others even by happenstance. As much as I have advocated for online meetings and hearings during the pandemic, last week’s in-person attendance places the democratic process in perspective. I remain a firm believer in hybrid meetings or having both in-person and online sessions, as my SCSU colleague Professor Jodie Gil and I researched at the beginning of the pandemic. But last week was refreshing and even natural to see witnesses and lawmakers engage in questioning and bantering online and in person. 

The legislative process must be a consistently interactive affair. To be part of a bill being crafted and debated is critical to our representative government. As voters, we need to do our share and engage beyond Election Day participation. Attending legislative sessions and committee meetings can be impactful, particularly now that residents can do so online as well as in person. 

Connecticut is a uniquely compact state, and this affords us a great ability and opportunity to be part of our state government’s operation. Spending my spring break in the state Capitol was a humble reminder of what we had prior to the pandemic and what we can do to connect and reconnect with others in the legislative process.

Jonathan L. Wharton

Jonathan L. Wharton

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of or any of the author's other employers.